Saturday’s post-match press conference was hit-in-the-pocket territory for Neil Redfearn. Leeds United’s head coach skilfully spared himself a misconduct charge from the Football Association but the performance of referee Graham Salisbury in a 1-0 defeat to Brentford tested his temper.
Redfearn kept his under control but the crowd allowed theirs to flare as Salisbury took his leave of Elland Road. Penalty decisions, handballs, 50-50 calls; the balance of his performance was in Brentford’s favour and attention centred on him. Twenty one of the 30 free-kicks went against Redfearn’s players and the temptation to let fly at full-time was tangible.
There was more to the result than the standard of refereeing and Redfearn admitted that Leeds have “played better than that” recently – his usual definition of an ordinary afternoon. Brentford had a slicker attack and played more of the football but Salisbury’s influence was not immaterial.
The Bees’ manager, Mark Warburton, tried his best to argue otherwise. “Watch that game back without the sound on and then see what you think,” he said. “The referee came under enormous pressure from the crowd and I’m not sure that helped him.” There was heat on Salisbury from an early stage, much of it self-inflicted. Redfearn bemoaned the major incidents but his annoyance stemmed primarily from the run-of-the-mill, marginal decisions.
“When they that go against you constantly, you’re fighting with one hand behind your back,” he said. “You don’t mind the odd decision going against you because that’s football but when it’s the majority of them, it does become frustrating.
“There are certain 50-50 decisions where you’ve got to be showing parity. You can’t go one way all the time. But there’s no point in me ranting and raving.”
His main bones of contention included two challenges by Moses Odubajo on Rodolph Austin, both committed before Alex Pritchard scored the game’s only goal on 65 minutes. The first, shortly before half-time, looked like a clear trip inside the box. The second after the interval was a softer nudge near the penalty spot – but a nudge all the same.
“I didn’t have a clear view of the first one but Rudy says it was a penalty,” Redfearn said. “He says it was more of a penalty than the second one but the second one was a penalty too.
“I was right behind that and Rudy’s breaking into the box. He ran across the lad who leaned into him. If that’s Rudy Austin in the centre of the pitch, the referee gives a free-kick. So what’s the difference?”
On his last appearance at Elland Road in November, Salisbury frustrated Redfearn by awarding Charlton a late penalty in a 2-2 draw. A month earlier, Warburton was heard berated the same referee for granting a “shocking” spot-kick during Brentford’s defeat at Watford. Swings and roundabouts, Warburton would call it. United’s boss on the other hand seems to be voicing these complaints every week.
“I know it’s a really tough job,” Redfearn said. “I do understand that. My criticism and comments will be constructive. I’ll try and give constructive feedback but so much seemed to go against us.
“The players, perhaps wrongly, got wrapped up in decisions and shut off a little bit for the goal. We’ve played better but the lads applied themselves. They just wanted the rub of the green and to be fairly treated.”
Pritchard’s strike was itself contentious, scored after an apparent handball by Brentford substitute Jon Toral on the right wing. Salisbury allowed the infringement to go and Toral played Toumani Diagouraga into space near the byline. His low cut-back ran all the way to an unmarked Pritchard who smashed the ball into an empty net in the far post.
The midfielder – on-loan at Brentford from Tottenham Hotspur – was a menace for the hour or so in which Leeds allowed him to pull the strings. In the first 20 minutes United suffocated him and Brentford saw nothing of the ball. When Pritchard came into the match, he took advantage of Redfearn’s decision to remove his two sitting midfielders and field a line-up with two strikers.
His 4-4-2 formation allowed Sharp to partner Steve Morison after his late winner at Huddersfield Town last weekend but as Redfearn conceded, the impact of his changes was not positive. Lewis Cook and Luke Murphy had quiet days and Sam Byram too. Sharp saw only one clear chance. “We were at home and we wanted to force the running,” Redfearn said. “Billy did well against Huddersfield and took his goal well so I thought that playing him would be the right thing to do – play two up top and go for Brentford.”
The tactics were ambitious but largely counter-productive. Liam Cooper flicked a header wide from close range during United’s strong start but it took until the last nine minutes for Leeds to shake Brentford’s defence. Sharp and debutant Edgar Cani were involved in a frantic injury-time scramble as three shots were blocked in quick succession. Sharp should have earned a point with another effort which flashed wide after Austin’s pass deflected to him.
“Billy’s chance was a great chance and he’s got to score, simple as that,” Redfearn said. “We did enough in front of goal to get a draw. Cooper’s header in the first half was an inch either way and of the two penalty decisions, if you get one then you’d like to think you’ll stick it away. But the quality chances were few and far between.”
Brentford, who are fourth in the Championship, were sharper where it mattered. They caught Leeds on the hop three times in the first half during attacks which called goalkeeper Marco Silvestri into excellent one-on-one saves from Jota and Andre Gray. Cooper resolved another crisis by taking out Pritchard and taking a booking as the 21-year-old swarmed forward.
Pritchard’s goal when it came was a sitter and Brentford went for the jugular in the final 25 minutes. Toral hit a post with a sweet volley from outside the box and drew another good parry from Silvestri. The visitors had the guise of an all-or-nothing side, in keeping with their tally of four draws.
As the frustration of Salisbury’s display kicked in, Austin was booked for a lunge on Odubajo and Cook received a warning for dissent having already received a booking. The fourth official was on Redfearn’s shoulder constantly, trying to keep the technical areas in order.
“In the first half we were off the pace all over the park,” Warburton admitted. “But our half-time talk was about stepping it up and that’s what we did.”
Redfearn will ask the same of his players before tomorrow night’s game at Reading. The reality on Saturday was that Salisbury’s display was the worst on an afternoon when others were guilty of under-performing too.
United’s boss is at least in a position to class it as a blip at the end of a decent run.